Liberty the loser

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2000, 12:00am

Time and again, instances crop up to illustrate the unique nature of Hong Kong. Where else in the world can there be a free society in which people are prepared to vote against an extension of their own liberties?

The 'nays' won the day in yesterday's unprecedented motion debate in the Legislative Council on the Public Order Ordinance, as it was always guaranteed they would. But if government officials believe this ends the matter, they could be in for a disappointment. That was apparently the administration's intention when it took the unorthodox decision to table a motion debate on an existing ordinance. However, it has only served to heighten awareness of the issue.

And the challenge the Secretary for Security faced in attempting to shore up the official case was all too apparent in the paucity of the argument. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee's colourful depictions of the woes that might befall the city unless police have seven days' notice of demonstrations verged on melodrama.

The vision of demonstrators causing a stampede by marching through Lan Kwai Fong is hardly credible, given that the invariable focus of attention for people airing a grievance is Government Headquarters, not the area for trendy bars where the young congregate. Nor can even the most junior Security Branch official seriously believe that the ordinance will have any influence whatever on the roving protesters who now regularly turn up to try to disrupt World Economic Forums.

This is an entirely local issue, and completely overblown. It has been pointed out frequently during the debate that if trouble ensues at a protest, there are several laws under which offenders can be prosecuted. What opponents dislike about the present law is that it makes a criminal act out of a trivial offence.

Obviously police find it easier to keep traffic flowing and minimise disruption to others if they know in advance a big demonstration is planned. Yet despite isolated police officers' tendency to overzealous use of pepper spray, this is not a city prone to violence. Peaceful demonstrators should not face penalties suited only to those who are.